Who’s that woman crying in the grocery store?

Grief, Sculpture by Andrassy Kurta
Grief, Sculpture by Andrassy Kurta

I cried today when I bought “Smart Food” in the grocery store.  That cheesy popcorn was one of Nancy’s favorite snacks, and just thinking about that catapulted me into grief once again.  I was purchasing it for my daughter Regina and her friends who were hanging out at our house after school.   I’ve been apt to tear up at the grocery store, the traffic light, yoga lessons, in fact, just about everywhere these days.  There are so many reminders that Nancy is permanently vacant from my life, at least in the physical realm (and I’m reserving judgment on the afterlife—haven’t heard from her yet).

But it makes me wonder: why haven’t I ever noticed people crying in the grocery store before? I can’t be the only widow, person who’s lost a child, whose world has been upended by divorce, by losing a home, a job, or whose relatives here or in other countries have been the victims of natural or unnatural disasters. Nor can I be the only one who responds to such calamities of life by tears. I wonder if I have been immune to the suffering of others, inoculated by my comfortable life with a stable partnership, two daughters, a nice home in a safe neighborhood, and a decent job? Sure I’ve had my own crosses to bear. With a sick partner for many years now, a labor-intensive job, and kids with needs–both special and ordinary–I have had my hands full. All these years, I’ve been huddling down into myself as I go about my shopping, single-mindedly pursuing my task of getting items off the grocery store shelves and into my basket, without taking notice of the sadness of other human beings around me.

Frequently I’ll make small talk with folks at the grocery store and other places, something that annoys the hell out of my kids. But I don’t think I probe beneath the surface of their superficial remarks. A friend of mine named Tami, also a lesbian widow, does probe beneath the surface in her interactions with strangers. While in the line to see a movie, she heard someone ask the woman behind her how she was doing. “Fine” the woman replied, but Tami heard in her voice that she was far from fine.   She asked the woman: “Why aren’t you fine?” And the woman told her that she had just lost her husband of forty years to cancer.   After which, they shared their individual stories and comforted each other. I want to be like Tami.

Recently, I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Beyond. I’d long ago put self-help books behind me, not because I didn’t have problems but because I believed that I had no need for their clichéd object lessons. I could solve my problems on my own.   I no longer have the arrogance of thinking that I don’t need help, solace, or inspiration from those wiser than myself—or even just wiser in ways that I am not. Desperation does that to you.

Lamott defends the “overly sensitive child” in her book. Chastised for being too sensitive as a child, she wonders if being sensitive to the many occasions of brutality and personal loss that is inherent in this life isn’t a reasonable response.   Considered an overly sensitive child myself, I felt somewhat redeemed by her analysis. But I want to be overly sensitive not only to my own personal losses but to the losses experienced by others.

During the time period of Nancy’s last stage of life and her death, our nation witnessed the horrific shooting in Ferguson and its aftermath of urban turmoil and outrage in the city and beyond.   I was aware of what was going on, but I skipped through the facebook posts and the news, numbly insensitive to the world’s greater cares in the light of my own personal tragedy. We can only experience so much pain at once, I guess.   But I hope to reclaim my ability to care about the world beyond my own experience.

But, really, my personal goal is less lofty than that: I want to use my experience of loss to try to become that woman who, having cried in the grocery store, is more open to the suffering of the world. Maybe then, I will notice all of the others who are crying in the grocery store.

The Gift

Chatham Village
Main Street, Chatham Village, Cape Cod

Christmas Eve in 2014 was just three months shy of the death of Nancy.  The children and I were visiting Nancy’s family in Chatham, Cape Cod, which was often our tradition. I had geared myself up to exude at least some Christmas cheer, sharing holiday greetings, hugging Nancy’s nieces and nephews, and stacking up the gifts under the Christmas tree. Nancy’s family members were optimistic people, even through many tragedies in their lives, so I tried to immerse myself in their holiday activities, and keep my grieving to a minimum.

The family was large and extremely close knit: throughout the holidays, Jack, Nancy’s brother and his wife Beth would be surrounded by all of their five grown children, their spouses, and Nancy’s mother and brother Pete.

Jack, Nancy’s oldest brother, and his wife Beth had been stalwarts in the life of our family. Jack’s love for Nancy was intense. The two siblings’ bond likely had been strengthened by the loss of their sister when she was just twenty-eight. But they had been close buddies since childhood, routinely “borrowing” idle sailboats in Chatham and sharing a love for the sea and boats ever since.

Jack’s warm and gregarious wife Beth had fostered the relationship of the two families, cheerfully visiting Michigan with Jack on regular occasions, and spending many holidays and vacations with us.  They had been second parents to our children, caring for them while Nancy had undergone chemotherapy, and walking with us through many moments of our life, both joyful and dark.

The Gardner home in Chatham had been a place of joy and respite for our family for several years. It was a large rambling home close to the ocean, the fish pier and Chatham’s antique downtown.   The kids made annual treks to the infamous Candy Manor, and I had often visited the coffee shop where regulars would gather on the benches facing Main Street during my early morning walks.   On Friday evenings, folks laid out their blankets early in order to occupy a place on the lawn to enjoy the Chatham band concerts, which featured old timey music, with elderly couples gracefully dancing to big band music and children joining in on the bunny hop. Chatham was almost the cliché of the small town all-American village, although its wealth shielded it from the harsher truths of life.

The Gardner’s had moved to the village shortly before retirement, and Jack had bought a boat, which he had lovingly named the “Nancy Alice” (Alice was Nancy’s middle name). The boat became a centerpiece around which many vacations revolved.   Jack often took us out to the deep waters so that we could marvel at the whales that cavorted off Chatham’s shore. On one such trip, we were surrounded by whales swirling dangerously close to the boat, so that we had to take off in fear that the boat would be tossed into the ocean waters as the animals played. Still, even that was part of the fun. There were so many photos of Nancy on that boat, completely at home on the ocean and with her family.

Since Jack moved to Chatham he had taken on the vocation of fishing with a vengeance. Jack had often enticed the girls, and sometimes Nancy, into rising at 5 a.m. to go deep-sea fishing at sunrise. Photos of Regina and Maia struggling under the weight of huge fish with extravagant smiles on their faces had elicited sighs of envy and admiration from many, especially my colleagues who were fishing aficionados.   The memories of that house and of that place had always included Nancy. Surrounded by her family and the sea, there was perhaps nowhere on earth where she was more joyous.

On the Christmas Eve after Nancy’s death, the Gardner’s were hosts extraordinaire, providing everything needed for their visitors to have a good time. Beth had been busy all day long, making preparations for the feasts for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. On Christmas Eve, I’d been eating wonderful lobster salad sandwiches and drinking good red wine. We engaged in a rollicking “Yankee Swap,” involved picking out an anonymous gift, and then swapping with others until the last player got to choose the final gift. Finally, the group was onto another rousing game of Guestures, a fast-paced charades game, which generated much silliness and hilarity.

Gardner Clan on Christmas Eve, 2014

But I had gotten tired of all the revelry and needed to retreat to my room, where I could gather my thoughts and experience feelings that were out of place in a merry Christmas Eve gathering.  The hollowness that lurked behind my holiday persona was overtaking me.

Fortunately, Beth had chosen to give me a different guest room than the one Nancy and I had shared year after year.  Because Nancy was ill, we had been granted what was arguably the most beautiful room in the house on the ground floor and just off the deck.   At first, Beth thought that I might sleep in that room on this visit, but, fortunately, she changed her mind when other visitors arrived. I was relieved.

How could I now sleep in that room, where looking through the window you could see the ocean peaking through the horizon, where you could walk out on the deck to view the placid waters of the salt water pond at the bottom of the hill, the vibrant rambling red roses, and the humming birds at the feeder? Nancy had often relaxed, as she did so well, lying on the hammock or lounging on a chair on the deck right outside of our bedroom door with a cup of coffee in hands, swaying to the warm breezes from the nearby surf.

Nancy Relaxing on the Deck
Nancy Relaxing on the Deck

In the middle of July, Jack and Beth had held a wedding party in our honor, and everything in that room, from the bedding to the curtains and the view, was the same as it had been during that short respite from Nancy’s treatment. The thought of sleeping in a place that had brought so much pleasure to her was seemingly unendurable.

But, thankfully, I was assigned to sleep in a room where I had never slept before and which had recently been redecorated. The room was restful; the calm colors of brown and blue provided me with a space that was comfortingly neutral, where I could get away from the holiday frivolity when I needed to.

My daughters slept in the room just next door to me with two twin beds. I was grateful to have a space where I could retreat when I needed to, but appreciated the close proximity to the girls.  My deep loneliness was abated when Maia came home from school for the holidays, for not only Nancy but Maia had also left home this past fall, leaving Regina and I with a house that was half empty.   Although Maia did not grieve overtly often, whenever I expressed my pain an angelic look would come over her face and she would lovingly comfort me.   But there were days over the holiday, when her grief did overcome her, and she had difficulty sleeping. One day she told me that she could not bear to see anyone connected with Nancy, and spent the day alone in her room.

But on Christmas Eve she had enjoyed the games.   Still, she had difficulty sleeping. After reading and thinking, I fell into a sleep, which, if not quite restful, was at least a relief.   Later that night, I felt a thump in my bed.   Thinking it was Regina who had often asked me to sleep with her at home, I began talking to her, but she did not answer me. My next thought was that someone had gotten into the wrong bed. But, no, it was my daughter Maia (who was hearing impaired and could not hear me), who had not joined me in bed for many years.   She was seventeen now. I felt her warmth beside me, the solidity and roundness of her being.   After a few minutes, she put her head on my chest, wrapped her arm around me and said: “I’m so glad that you’re my mother.” I pulled her closer to myself, and relaxed into the restorative warmth of her being.   This was my gift on Christmas Eve: the love of my children and the legacy of my life with Nancy.

Me and my Girls, post Nancy: left to right, Maia, Regina, Julia
Me and my Girls, post Nancy: left to right, Maia, Regina, Julia

Attending to the Ordinary is One of the Great Blessings of being Alive

woman in meadow

In one of my earlier posts, “Footprints, ” I had commented on how I have become newly aware of the great blessing of paying attention to the ordinary.   This was something I learned from Nancy.  At Nancy’s memorial service, we read Nancy’s favorite poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, which makes this point much more beautifully than I ever could.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Getting to the Courthouse on Time

From left to right: Nathan,Vicki, Sieg, me, and the beautiful Nancy

Today, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court announced that states could not deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.   It was a bittersweet moment for me and others who have lost their partners to death before our rights to legally sanctioned love had been won.   I remember vividly the day on March 22, 2014 that Nancy and I had wed after over 25 years of living, loving, raising children, and making a family.   There had been a five-hour window that Saturday, when a few county courthouses in Michigan opened their doors to ensure that same-sex couples had an opportunity to marry.   An earlier Michigan court ruling had claimed that the marriages were invalid, that it was as if “the marriages had never existed.”   Now today, less than a year after Nancy’s death, our love has been enshrined by law.  My thoughts for gay and lesbian couples everywhere are joyful; my own thoughts wander back to that day when, though Nancy was already ill, we did not know that she would die that year, nor that our love would be vindicated by the highest courts of the land.  We had only been married for seven months before Nancy died. And even when we were married, our status was constantly in question.   But we did get married; at least I have that.

We were wed on a Saturday morning, when laundry and housework were the biggest items on my agenda.   Nancy was resting in bed, and I was checking the news to see what had happened following the previous court ruling the night before that had opened the doors to same-sex marriage in Michigan. The latest I had heard from my ex-student and LGBT ally and politician Nathan Triplett was that the local courthouse would probably open very early on Monday, and that we could be first in line to marry. But, although I didn’t know it, Nathan and others had been lobbying Barb Byrum, the county clerk, to open the Mason courthouse for marriages on Saturday to ensure that same-sex couples had the opportunity to marry before the state shut them down.

On Saturday morning, Nathan messaged me that the marriages were happening in Mason that morning, and he would be honored to officiate at our wedding. I sashayed into Nancy’s bedroom, where she was still resting and asked at about 11:00 a.m., “Hey, do you want to get married?” She looked at me incredulously from her bedside, “Today?” And I told her that we had a short window until 1:00 p.m. when the courthouse was supposed to close, although Nathan assured me that the doors would be open until we got there.   The marriages might also take place on Monday, but we couldn’t be sure, and—in fact—they did not.  Those who didn’t make it to the courthouse on Saturday had missed the marriage boat, at least temporarily.

“Well, why not?” she said, and got up, threw on some halfway decent clothes, and we sped off to Mason, almost giddy with excitement.   We hadn’t really thought about anything other than getting there. The kids were still in bed. We hadn’t bothered to wake them up to witness the occasion. On our way, we thought to phone our beloved friend Linda. “We’re getting married in Mason,” we told her. “I’m bringing flowers and champagne” she said, and ran to her car to meet us there.

Arriving in Mason, we felt that we were part of something larger.   Mason is a small semi-rural town, where you don’t typically see throngs of lesbians and gays in the town square, let alone sporting wedding garb. There were rainbow flags, reporters, photographers and—once we entered the courthouse—several ministers who had come to the courthouse specifically to marry same-sex couples:  a spectacle that Mason had not yet witnessed.

Thanks to grassroots organizations, which had been planning for years just for this occasion, the courthouse was like a well-oiled machine despite the crowds.   Once we got there, though, we remembered our dear friends Sieg and Vicki, who had been married years ago, but still weren’t legal. We got on our cell phones and they immediately stopped shopping to come meet us at the courthouse. We had raised our children with Sieg and Vicki, and we wanted to share this moment with them. Nathan promised that he would marry us all together, even if they were late. While we waited, Nathan also found Nancy a comfortable place to sit and some food, since she wasn’t feeling well.

Finally, Sieg and Vicki arrived, breathless and gleeful to be part of this experience.   Lining up to fill out our paperwork, there were so many couples who had been steadfast in their love for each other for many years.   These were not, for the most part, the faces and bodies of young love.  After so many years of partnership, people who no doubt had experienced the same conflicts and hardships of couples everywhere, were still eager to have their bonds legitimized. These were loves that had been tested not only by the vagaries of life but by years of having their unions invalidated by society and sometimes by their own friends and family.

Even after we were married, I constantly had to withstand questions about my relationship to Nancy, “the patient” and later, “the deceased.”  Was I the sister, the friend, the daughter? Never the lover, the partner, the wife.   When we went to sign the death certificate, the funeral director stated that legally Nancy’s mother should sign it, since the marriages were questionable in Michigan. Luckily, I had my sister Kate with me, who gazed at the man intently and suggested firmly that he let the widow sign the certificate.  It had been hard enough to get me there.

Nancy clasping me in her arms with Nathan officiating
Nancy clasping me in her arms with Nathan officiating

Finally, the moment arrived for the ceremony.  As our dear friends Sieg and Vicki stood by us, Linda and our friends’ children looking on, my beloved student told us the words to say that we had heard him say when he had wed Sarah. Looking into each other’s eyes, not knowing what our future would be, we spoke the words that legitimized a lifetime of love in the eyes of the state. I promised her that I would be there for her in sickness and in health.  At least I had that.

Footprints

Idle boats

Today I walked on the beach in the footprints of past walks with Nancy. We were in Chatham, Cape Cod, for the winter holidays. Chatham was the home of Nancy’s brother and his family, as well as the village where she had spent many blissful summers as a child.    Nancy’s brother, Jack, his wife Beth, and their five grown children would be joining us for various of the festivities: Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and Jack’s birthday the day after Christmas. But the festivities were all a bit much, just shy of three months after Nancy’s death. I would have to walk alone in my grief, trying hard not to spoil the enjoyment of those for whom the Christmas festivities should not be marred by tears and lamentations.

One morning I rose before the others and walked down to the fish pier, just a short walk from the house. The winter sun did not warm but illuminated the sharply evanescent cold blue of the sky, with the promise of lightening the dark blue of early morning waters.

This brief walk to the fisherman’s pier was one we had taken time and time again. From the pier you could see not only boats, small spits of sand, and sea birds, but even seals, especially after the fishermen had brought in their haul.   It was an annual pilgrimage for our family to arrive just as the fisherman came in and discarded their trash fish to the hungry seals that awaited them.   I don’t think that the children were more excited than we were, when we saw the seals diving for fish, playing with each other, going down deep and seeming to disappear before they popped up again right in front of your eyes. Now that the children are aging into young adulthood and Nancy is gone, how many more such walks will we take as a family?

Chatham-Fish-Pier-07686

Walking down the beach, I noticed the foot prints of other walkers: a child’s footprint next to the three-legged print of a sea bird, then a larger footprint, maybe that of a father.   Now I saw what I took to be a father, his dog, and his child. Did they realize the memories they were making? Nancy and I and the children had made many such footprints through the years.   The footprints, so finely etched, would be washed away, but what would happen to our memories?  Without these written words would they too gradually or quickly lose their contours?

I heard the seabirds calling, some of them sounding almost ethereal, like ancient musical instruments. Once I had seen them as ordinary sea gulls, too ordinary to notice. Now I forced myself to listen and look not only for the remarkable but for the ordinary, newly realizing how attention to the ordinary is one of the great blessings of being alive.

Flock_of_Seagulls_(eschipul)

I stopped to take photographs of the lonely boats, idling in the cold waters at the fish pier. I found some boats to be beautiful floating vessels on the sea, but to Nancy boats were more than just physical constructions but embodiments of pleasure.   She dreamed of boats, constantly cruising Craig’s list for the perfect little sunfish she could find to putter about in Nantucket Sound in Cape Cod, then bring home to put on Lake Lansing. I worried about the finer details of bringing the boat from the Cape to Michigan, let alone whether her health was good enough to maintain and use a boat during the summer, which would end up being her last one.   If she had lived, she imagined joining the skipper of a sailboat and navigating the waters off the East Coast or even some more remote area for some lengthy period. When she verbalized these wishes, I was secretly skeptical of the possibility, given her poor health, but felt guilty about my inability to dream along with her.   And, worse still, I knew I could not remain on a sailing vessel for long and feared that I would miss her were she to take off on such a trip.

What she saw in sailboats continued to elude me. During my one stretch overnight in a sailboat of her friend’s, we all got seasick from the swells of an unforeseen storm, the friend’s baby throwing up and crying endlessly.   I was struck by claustrophobia.  Day trips off the shores of Cape Cod with Nancy’s brother were delightful, but I dreaded the experience of actually living on a boat for more than one night. But this was not my dream, but Nancy’s.

Nancy was a big dreamer, always imagining the possibility of having spectacular adventures, while I limited myself to more mundane and affordable visions of the future. Although a dreamer, more than most people I know, Nancy really knew how to partake of the pleasures of the world, putting petty issues behind her to focus on what was really important: like the first bloom of spring or the first warm rays of the sun after a tough Michigan winter. While I worried about laundry on a Sunday morning, Nancy wanted to sit on an easy chair in the sun with a cup of coffee and experience a day without being encumbered by my trivial annoyances.

The ordinary moments, the extraordinary ones, and even the ones we may or may never have speak to me in new ways as I seek to experience and remember all that Nancy has left behind.   I mourn the footprints of where she been, as well as all the new ones she will never make and the rays of the sun that will never warm her back again.

.

Lost and Found

cranes

In October of nearly every year, when the autumn leaves are at their crispest and most vivid in Michigan, our family had driven to Calhoun County, often with our friends Daria and Virginia and their children, to see the annual migration of the sand hill cranes to the wetlands. Just a one-hour drive, there was usually a festival in honor of the occasion, with distractions for children who were not as excited as the adults were to bear witness to the swelling descent of the cranes. After the children had visited the crafts booths, watched tamed wild animals perform their feats for the visitors, and drank warm cider, we would amble over to the hillside where the best viewing was to be had.

On that hill, devoted bird watchers, many with binoculars, some with scopes, were gathering, patiently waiting for the cranes, which would begin arriving about 4:30 but would not fill the skies until dusk. One could count on the good cheer of people who love birds: outfitted in their warmest outdoor gear, and watching intently as the numbers of cranes grew by the minute, swooping through the sky before their tremulous feet touched down on the watery earth. By the time it was peak viewing for the cranes, the kids were usually getting antsy and ready to abandon the cold hillside for the car and drive to nearby “Turkeyville,” where comforting hot turkey sandwiches and dinners were to be had. All of this was warm and wonderful: the companionship of good friends, the traditional turkey eating, and watching our children traipse about in the wooded sanctuary. But for Nancy and I, watching the cranes was the magical event, to be repeated year after year.

Turkeyville

Nancy died on October 1st, shortly before the sand hill cranes’ migration to Michigan. A memorable photograph of the sand hill cranes was placed near her bedside as she approached death. And as we (Nancy’s closest friends, two of my sisters, and our daughters) sang goodbye to Nancy the night before she died, we hadinvoked the image of a sand hill crane comforting her and carrying her to the other side.

On a brisk and bleak November morning about a month and a half after Nancy died, I decided that I needed to see the sand hill cranes again. I bundled up in my new winter cap, hiking shoes, and down coat, determined that the cold would not deter me from my mission. I planned to explore a nature trail that I had never visited before just down the road from the festival arena.

This was a trip that I had made many times before, and I thought that the drive would take care of itself.   But I soon realized that I could take nothing for granted anymore. At the beginning of the trip, as the highway split off into two different directions, I inadvertently took the wrong turn, and it was quite some time before I discovered my mistake. This was a minor setback, and I turned off the highway in order to enter again in the right direction. But when I got to the general area of the crane sanctuary, I took the wrong exit off the highway. After what seemed to be miles and miles of flat farmland that failed to trigger any memories, I realized that I had no idea where I was.

I pulled by the side of the road and wept, overwhelmed by the ways in which my grief was making it impossible for me to find my way. I then turned again to the task of finding my destination. After fiddling with my phone’s navigational device, I eventually got headed again toward the trail I had been looking for.

Finally, I drew in my breadth, grateful that I had finally arrived at the Marsh Nature Trail. The wooden sign told me that I would encounter wetlands, woodlands, and most likely great viewing venues for the cranes.   It was cold, but I was fortified for the weather, and braced myself to encounter the grim natural beauty of November in Michigan—a fitting landscape for the barrenness I felt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a very short time on the trail I began to see numerous felled trees blocking me in several directions.  Many of them were overlapping, and the entire way ahead of me was strewn with obstacles to walking. Whether the trees had been felled by nature or humans was unclear, but as I moved on it was clear that the path was non-existent. I began stepping over fractured and distorted fir trees, telling myself that I was exercising more muscles than I normally would, but also anxious about falling, because it was unlikely that any other human being would be likely to trek through this stricken landscape. I stopped to sit on one such fractured log, wondering if I would ever find my way through this chaos.

Climbing over the branches, I finally found a clearing, with a flat hill ahead of me, a good spot for catching sight of the cranes.   The plaintive cries of the sand hill cranes greeted me before I saw them.    First a group of three, then groups of four and five spread their wildly wide wings above me, soaring in a pattern I strove to discern, as I could not see where they were headed.   It was daytime; they would not be settling down on the marsh. Instead they would be foraging for their meals—where, I did not know. I walked around haphazardly trying to follow their pattern; each time I caught a sight of them I would feel a softening of my grief.

I still had plans to go to work that day, so I soon decided to find my way back to my car. The high clearing allowed me to see where I was, but there was no way that I would be returning the same way that I came in, as there was no path to follow, and I had seesawed my way to where I was.   So I stepped awkwardly around the trees, until I saw the bench that signified proximity to the beginning of the trail. I was close to the end.

As I approached my car, I checked in my pocket for my car keys, where I had left them. The keys were gone, even though I distinctly remembered putting them there.   I looked behind me, paralyzed by the thought that I had lost my keys on the trail. There was no way that they could be found without endless wandering, of which I was incapable in my present state of mind. And even then, it was unlikely I would find them. Whatever resourcefulness I once possessed had been eroded by my grief.

I walked a few more steps closer to the car and saw the keys on the ground just a short distance from the car.   The found keys appeared to be a blessing, maybe even a sign from Nancy, or even God if he/she existed, that somewhere in the universe something/one would be looking out for me.   Probably the found keys were just a fortunate coincidence, but looking up at the gray sky and at my car awaiting my drive home, I wondered if maybe I would find my way after all.

The Mourning House

 

I currently sleep in the guest room of my house. The other room I used to sleep in – which I have been calling the “hospice room”–is now a more hallowed space. That room was redesigned just prior to death of the woman who had accompanied me through life and parenting for 27 years. We’d only been married for 6 months, due to a 5-hour period during which same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Michigan.  The death was unanticipated; diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, just one year earlier had led us to believe we had “years” instead of a year to share our lives together. Once a partner, spouse, and co-parent, I must now try on the identity of widow, while existing inside of a house that no longer feels like home.

In the hospice room, the hospital bed is gone, but there are many artifacts put in place for healing purposes. A Buddha statue from Sri Lanka donated by my sister for good luck; framed close-ups of photos of orchids taken by our daughter when we went to the orchid show last year; a print of the magnificent sand hill cranes whose visits to the wetlands of Michigan we witnessed every October.

Artifacts from the hospice room
Artifacts from the hospice room

When I walk through that room I see not the space where my partner and I once slept together, did our nightly roundup of the day’s events, and watched our favorite television shows. Once I had listened to Nancy whisper “sleep with angels, darlin’” each night before we switched off the lights. Now, I see a kind of vacuous shrine that I don’t wish to disturb.

The hospice room is artful. Our antique mahogany bed is spread with a treasured cover from Nepal, and its geometric purple and green hues are echoed in the pillows and in the lilac paint on the walls.   Nancy has left many objects containing memorabilia—cigar boxes, a pewter bowl, an old candy tin.   When I am brave enough to look through them I find weathered photos of her father and grandparents in sepia, small jewelry boxes containing antique rings and pearls, the invitation to her parents’ wedding in 1950, the baby shoes of our daughters. It contains remnants of a life I once was part of.

In the guest room where I sleep, I still feel like a visitor. The room remains the same as when it housed guests, not particularly inviting and somewhat disturbingly impersonal. The colors clash: pink curtains, a blue patterned quilt, walls painted a jolting lime green.  A large unadorned bed dominates the smallish room. It’s not designed for comfort or charm. But in my current uncomfortable frame of mind, it seems to fit my requirements.

A perennial basket of unfolded laundry resides in the corner of the anonymous space where I now reside. My computer, my refuge, stands ready for my use, although I still can’t find a show I want to watch or a book I want to read.   Scanning facebook, reading through emails, I seek connections to fill the stillness that stretches before me.

The rest of the house is also still somewhat alien territory, transformed by the permanent vacancy of one of its occupants. My sprightly teenaged daughter, whose easy laughter hasn’t changed much since toddlerhood, begs me to go upstairs with her at night, and she will not go back downstairs again without me, spooked by a house that is devoid of her other mother. She asks me to accompany her to the bathroom at night and in the early dark mornings. She fears that Nancy is somehow here in the house as a ghost, but perhaps not as much as she fears living in a house where Nancy no longer exists.

Nancy’s mother says she cannot bear to visit us in this place, not while the painful memories of her daughter seem to bounce off every surface of the house. But my daughter and I must live in this mourning house, trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.